"Postcards From the Future"
Where will our road into space take us as our adventure expands beyond Earth?
by Michelle Evans & Ray Montgomery, November 2008
Since the first time we looked up in the night sky, we have been fascinated by the lights twinkling above. Our ancestors reached for them from tall trees or mountain tops, but always fell short. Once their nature and distance were understood, different ways were used to try to grasp them using telescopes or other optical aids. More recently, with the dawn of the Space Age, some of those lights are now human made. We regularly go outside, even in urban sky-glow areas, and see the International Space Station or Space Shuttle sail overhead. It is exciting to see a bright dot of light moving through the dark and understanding that there are people riding aboard, orbiting Earth and looking back down our direction, or even further out into space, dreaming and working towards that next great leap outward.
An amazing vision of the future is what it might be like when we can not only look upward to see an orbiting spacecraft, but beyond that to see actual lights on the Moon when the dark crescent is low in the sky. What wonder and imagination will this instill in those of us on Earth to see with our own eyes the human handiwork on another heavenly body in the cosmos, knowing that men and women are living amazing and full lives away from their home planet? Think of the generations of people who will be inspired to take part in that, to be there, and to go further.
This is the fundamental question answered in part by a remarkable short film, Postcards From the Future, from filmmaker and director Alan Chan and Mahalo Bay Films. Alan was recently kind enough to come to the Orange County Space Society for a very special screening of his important film, and to field questions from our members.
To get this project off the ground, Alan leveraged the power of the internet to find like-minded people with special-effects training and a space vision. Typically an effects person has only one to two weeks of free time between projects, so Alan divided the movie into small, compartmentalized chunks so each person could work independently on different parts of the movie, then Alan pieced it all together. Thus, Postcards From the Future is, essentially a labor of love.
Right after the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was announced in January 2004 as a new direction for our space program outside low Earth orbit, Alan got the idea for this movie. Part of the reason for doing this was to show the public what space exploration actually means. In other words, he put the words into images for the public to understand and embrace.
Alan wanted to lift people out of themselves and catch a vision for what can be done, akin to the vision we had in the 1960s with Apollo, and which we’ve since lost. The American aversion to any kind of risk these days Alan terms as “the woosification of America,” and he believes that once a frontier to explore has been lost, society will stagnate; without a frontier to explore society will become insular and inward-thinking, and ultimately implode.
Instead, Alan wanted to show us how bright our future might be through the possibilities of space exploration and settlement. To accomplish his task, he gives us the character of Sean Everman (Robb Hughes), an engineer who takes on the job of building the first electrical power grid on the Moon for a colony at its north pole. As with people working and living on outposts in Antarctica today, Sean is far from home in this endeavor, and it is easy to see his reluctance to spend so much time away from his wife Karen, and his family. Always in the back of his mind, there is the knowledge that, if disaster comes, there is no one outside their small group for support. This is brought suddenly home with the explosive loss of several colleagues due to an accident. Sean’s outlet for his feelings are his regular video postcards back home to his wife, Karen. In them, he grouses about living conditions and the bland food, “I would kill for a Twix bar,” he says.
Due to illness, Karen is not able to join Sean, but she convinces him of the worthiness of what he is doing, and he slowly comes to the realization this is more than just about him. His daughter, Caleigh (Coriann Bright), certainly agrees with this sentiment as she joins the first crew to set foot on Mars, even accomplishing this after a major disaster strikes the crew on the eve of their triumphant landing.
Using Caleigh’s character, Alan wanted to show the youth of today, who have grown up with instant gratification and results, to think beyond “now” and realize that sometimes results take years, even decades, in the case of space exploration, to achieve. This is also an important message we send from OCSS, that the kids out there today are the ones who will be taking us back off this planet and onto other planets such as Mars, or even the giant Saturnian moon, Titan.
As a director with extensive special effects background and a great love of space exploration, Alan was in the perfect position to tell this story, his grandiose vision of the future. The entire movie was shot against green screen so that no actual sets had to be built, thus keeping the budget in range of an independent filmmaker. Even though this part of the production took only a couple of days, it still required approximately 3/4th of his entire budget. However, what you see on the movie screen is anything but low budget. The sets have realism and depth not found in much more expensive productions. Instead, we feel transported to Sean Everman’s world of working on the Moon, slugging away at a job he, at first, just wants to do and get home. There are problems with air, water, and food, not to mention just plain boredom at being far from home. There is also danger. People will die on the road to open the solar system, just like so many were lost in the westward movement 150 years ago, or even in frontiers like Antarctica today, but that does not deter people who truly understand what this all means for everyone’s future.
It would have been easy to take “The Right Stuff” approach to this material, giving us astronaut heroes out to win a victory against the unforgiving cosmos. Instead, by focusing on a person like Sean, a working stiff, a man with a family and worries about paying the bills, we can all identify with him and his life. We can also identify with his change of vision as his wife gets him to understand the bigger picture and go beyond the fact that what he is doing is “not just a job.”
Besides the story, there is a great visual experience to be had with watching Postcards From the Future. From the moment the film begins, we are provided with wonderful, versatile, and practical designs that NASA should be looking at with their own projected space exploration architecture. An excellent example is the Lunar Transport Vehicle (LTV). It can move people from point-to-point about the Moon, near the base, or anywhere on the surface. It also eventually serves as the first stage of the Mars Traveler, the first human-crewed mission to the red planet.
An addition to the litany of transport vehicles not normally seen in near-future depictions of space travel, is the space elevator. When I first saw its appearance on screen, it truly brought the grandeur of Alan’s vision into focus, about how it could, and should, be. Alan included the space elevator to get the message out there as to what can be done, helping the public visualize these concepts and how they will affect their lives, while also realizing that, in reality, this part of his story is probably beyond the scope of what could be accomplished by a single generation of space settlers and explorers. He thus sees his job as serving as a conduit between the space scientists and the public, giving visual substance to oratory.
When the Mars Traveler descends to the rusty surface of our neighbor planet it is not a one-shot mission, but a full-up colony ship with the basics needed to be self sufficient. Once the Martian settlement is up and running, we see no let-up in preparations for going even farther. This shows us that the basic infrastructure of the Vision for Space Exploration can hopefully do exactly what we want it to do: to expand human presence in our solar system, and to no longer be limited to our tiny little corner of space. This is an ongoing quest, one that will take the entire future of humankind, but we have to start somewhere, and Alan Chan, with Postcards From the Future, has given us a blueprint of what it could be like.